Roundtable / Season Review / Union

Season review: 2019 MLS wrapup roundtable

Photo: Earl Gardner

In the relatively short history of the Philadelphia Union, the 2019 season is unique.

There was no U.S. Open Cup action of any real meaning, but the team ran in first place for much of the year, before earning their first-ever playoff victory. But it wasn’t without disappointment, including periods of time where much of the fan base questioned the teams drive and ability to get things done.

So despite the unprecedented success in the postseason, there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding this team. Were the good or just lucky? Is this season a first step towards Philadelphia becoming a Major League Soccer powerhouse, or just an outlier? The roster will change before the 2020 season, but how?

As is traditional for this time of year, a panel of Philly Soccer Page writers discussed these and other questions, and came to the following conclusions:

Do you believe Ernst Tanner when he says the Union won’t be selling any homegrowns this offseason?

Jim O’Leary: I do. This first wave of homegrowns are going to establish the Union’s reputation as a selling club, so I think it’s the right move to make sure the players are absolutely ready. Long term the team will be better served by selling known quantities, rather than trying to convince teams to take a gamble on unproven product.

Chris Gibbons: I believe everything Ernst Tanner says at this point. His track record of honesty speaks for itself.

Dan WalshYes. None of them are ready to reap significant value in the transfer market yet, but some could be very close to that very soon. All it takes is one Matt Miazga-like season from Mark McKenzie or Auston Trusty to turn either one into a $4-7 million transfer.

Peter Andrews: Yes. There’s no reason to think that Tanner isn’t telling the truth, and there are no homegrowns on the roster who, at this stage in their career, are likely to recoup significant value in the transfer market.

Christian SandlerThere wouldn’t be any reason to lie about that right now, and there also wouldn’t be any reason to sell any of the homegrowns right now. None of them are ready for the transfer market and the Union very well may need the depth after this offseason. Tanner is almost certainly telling the truth.

Mike Servedio: Yes, for this offseason. There’s potential there with Aaronson, Trusty, and especially McKenzie for one of them to make a move at some point, but another year of quality soccer in MLS is still in the best interest of all of them.

Nick FishmanYes, Tanner hasn’t been deceptive during his brief tenure with the Union. Aaronson and McKenzie are the two with any value, but their worth could be buoyed by the 2020 Olympics. Also, the Union want to build on this season’s success. Selling two starters won’t help. Side note: while not a homegrown, Olivier Mbaizo could fetch a nice fee if he makes the jump to Cameroon’s senior team.

Tim Jones: Yes, I believe him because of his response to the question about selling Kai Wagner back to Europe in the end-of-season press conference. There has not yet been enough time to create value as opposed to flashes in the pan, and the Union are still trying to improve their own competitive position so they want to keep their best players.

Sean Griswold: Yes. None of them are ready to make the jump to the next level, and I don’t think he’s ready to give up on any just yet.

What players do you expect to leave the Union this season?

Jim: I hate to see him go, but I imagine Fafà Picault won’t return. He isn’t a great fit when the Union play 4-4-2, and the team wasn’t effective as a 4-2-3-1. He is out of contract but not eligible for free agency, which makes things a little complicated. If I had to guess his rights will get sold to Miami for some Allocation Money and a handshake deal to protect the Union in the expansion draft.

Chris: Andre Blake. For the reasons listed here.

Dan: Marco Fabian. I know that’s a bit obvious, but beyond that, it’s hard to name significant players because the Union should bring back nearly all of their nucleus and have the ability to do so. (Jamiro Monteiro is the other one, but the Union should be bending over backwards to keep him.)

Peter: While Fabian and Monteiro are the most likely departures, don’t sleep on the Union moving on from Haris Medunjanin. The seemingly ageless wonder turns 35 at the start of next season, so there are questions about whether he can maintain his remarkable consistency. (Hard to believe, but Haris has only missed four MLS matches out of 102 possible in his three years with the Union.) Tanner may believe that the Union will be better off with a different type of player (read: non-regista) in the No. 6 role.

Christian: I won’t be surprised at all if if Kai Wagner moves on. He proved to be one of the Union’s best players this year and, frankly, will probably be too good for MLS soon if he isn’t already. He’s young and at a position like left back, I’d imagine he’d have plenty of suitors in Europe.

Mike: I unfortunately don’t think Monteiro has an interest in staying, so I expect him to be back in Europe. Fabian didn’t quite fulfill expectations and I doubt he’ll be back. I’ll agree with Jim here too and wouldn’t be surprised if Picault ends up somewhere else in the league (Miami a nice fit).

Nick: Of the names mentioned, Wagner and Blake are the only ones I expect to stay. So instead, I’ll focus on a Union legend. Fabinho will finally ride his sun rocket into a coaching position at YSC Academy.

Tim: I expect Olivier Mbaizo to leave because a player (Nathan Harriel) who displays much greater ease of tactical flexibility and adaptability is behind him in the Academy with more Bethlehem starts, appearances and minutes as a junior and a rising senior this season.

Sean: Fafá Picault. With an opportunity to go home to Miami and play his natural position, with more playing time, I think he’s gone.

What do the Union need most before the 2020 season?

Jim: Striker remains a significant concern. Pryzbylko had a great season, but with his injury history it seems like a bad plan to build everything around him. The team could be a real powerhouse with [DP Striker] + Striker Muffin up top, backed by Wooten and Santos as depth.

Chris: I would like to see a DP-level No. 10 on a two-year (or more) deal. Lock that position up, build around the playmaker, turn the next season and it’s off-season into something with more continuity.

Dan: A creative No. 10 in the Borek Dockal mode. If Dockal had returned, how much better would this team have been? Also, a striker. If Pryzbylko doesn’t return healthy, then this team has no proven MLS goal-scorer up top.

Peter: An up-and-coming central midfielder (or two). Midfield was the strength of the Union this year, but Fabian and Monteiro are likely leaving, Medunjanin and Bedoya are hitting their mid-30s, and Brendan Aaronson’s influence on the side was hit-or-miss. Tanner should be searching for a couple guys in the Monteiro mold who can challenge for starting places immediately and be part of the club’s plans for the next three-to-five years.

Christian: Has to be a creative goal scorer of some kind. Whether that be a striker or No. 10, it was definitely what the squad was lacking at times this season. Everyone thought Fabian was going to be that guy and Kacper Przybylko was a pleasant surprise, but the Union need a dangerous, reliable scorer in the final third.

Mike: Midfield options. With Monteiro and Fabain likely moving on, they’ll need to be replaced. Some sort of option to sub for Bedoya and Medunjanin would be a nice add as they were both asked to play a lot of soccer in 2019. I’ll throw in an upgrade at right back here too, because it would make this team so much more dynamic.

Nick: Twenty-something-year-old midfielders. Philly’s depth was their strength, but not necessarily in the midfield. The Union need to bridge the gap from their veterans to their homegrowns. Don’t necessarily block Aaronson and Anthony Fontana, and don’t count on Bedoya and Medunjanin to keep defying father time.

Tim:  three things – Przybylko’s stress reaction to heal without Joel Embiid-like surgical intervention and time, replace Borek Dockal successfully, bring in younger meaningful competition for Haris Medunjanin at DCM/regista,to improve the Bosnian or to replace him.

Sean: Midfield depth. With an older Medujanin and Bedoya the bench is going to make more of an impact than just Warren Creavalle, which hopefully comes from Anthony Fontana and Matt Real.

How concerned should Union fans be about Bethlehem Steel FC’s abysmal season?

Jim: Winning is good, but the purpose of Bethlehem Steel was never to win. The purpose is to build talent, and so long as they keep doing that winning is secondary. Though I worry about the team’s longevity if they can’t get back to the Lehigh Valley soon.

Chris: Not at all concerned.

Dan: Very concerned. This team needs to get back to the Lehigh Valley ASAP. It’s no coincidence that the team’s slide came in the year they basically became homeless.

Peter: Moderately concerned. Results don’t matter, but the Union should expect one or more key members of the Steel to make contributions to the Union next year — I’m thinking Homegrowns Matt Freese, Anthony Fontana, and Matt Real, plus internationals Michee Ngalina and left back Walter Cortes as likely candidates. If they don’t, it raises concerns about whether the Steel project is working.

Christian: It’s kind of hard to be concerned when Brendan Burke’s job as the Steel coach has very little to do with winning matches. That being said, if the players he’s trying to develop aren’t performing at a certain level and, in turn, not winning some matches, it may point to the development slowing a bit.

Mike: Not that concerned. The team is still proving to be a useful tool for developing Union youngsters. Real is seemingly knocking on the first team door, Fontanta was useful when he did appear, and Matt Freese seems ready to be the backup to Andre Blake next year.

Nick: Just keep the pipeline flowing from the academy to the Steel to the Union.

Tim: If the technical staff and the captain are returning, the level of concern about the Steel should be moderate and guarded. Remember 2016 ended poorly — no wins in the last twelve from mid-July — and the Irishmen Burke, Hogan and Chambers adjusted successfully, with some subtle but supportive changes from Stewart, Curtin, and Albright. More important to remember is that the USL-MLS agreement that has governed MLS player development in the USL expires next month and faces renegotiation.  All the certainties of the last six years are no longer necessarily certain.

Sean: Not very. A lot of the Union homegrowns weren’t on the field for the last month and a half (when the Steel were really bad). If it continues for a couple months next year I would start to worry.

Was 2019 a successful year for the Union?

Jim: Yes. But not the “mission accomplished” kind of success, rather the success that only raises the bar for next season.

Chris: Yes, but even with MLS Cup on the horizon, the Union are already far, far into the sports landscape’s rear view.

Dan: Yes, without question. That said, it’s also a missed opportunity. If Przybylko had been healthy, they could have beaten both Atlanta and Toronto.

Peter: Yes. The Union hit their goals: hosting a home playoff game, and winning a playoff game. Now the job is to take a step forward and mount a serious challenge for MLS Cup.

Christian: No. I’m going to be in the minority here, but this season ended just like all the early exits in the playoffs before. I understand the significance of hosting a home playoff match, but no one is going to remember this team being in first place for so long. No one outside Philly is going to consider this team one of the best of the 2019 season.  Club records are great, but everyone should be striving for an Eastern Conference final and, eventually, an MLS Cup. I believe in what Tanner is doing, but this season shouldn’t be good enough for him.

Mike: Absolutely. Highest ever league finish. First place for almost half the season. Attractive soccer. Best Sporting Director/Coach cohesion in history. First playoff win. There’s plenty of room for improvement as points were left on the field a few times and a further playoff run was possible with this team. But it felt like a strong step forward this year.

Nick: Yep. You can’t go to Mars if you never learn to fly.

Tim: Yes. Ticket-buying fans came back towards the end of the season. Anecdotally, casual fans noticed that they were doing better judging by questions I got while out and about in a Union hoodie. They won some games when they had to win them. Red Bull’s can no longer dismiss them as a rival, because the Union beat them up and stole their lunch money twice. And as poor as Bethlehem’s record and finish were, they tuned up Przybylko early, graduated Fontana, Real, and — probably — Ngalina to the first-team from being Steel mainstays, they learned Jack De Vries was worth preventing from departing for Europe, they got a good read on Cole Turner’s weaknesses as a DCM, and IMO they found out that Nate Harriel is probably a better prospect that Olivier Mbaizo.

Sean: Yes. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it takes longer than a year to build a winning mentality and culture. Winning a playoff was a first, but big step in that process.


  1. In Tanner We Trust says:

    I like the point about learning a lot about next year’s team. We have players who could possibly step up in a big way like Fontana and Real. There are obviously a few key signings we’d like to see, but the offseason will be successful if we hit on most of our needs. Striker. #10, RB, and Midfield depth. We don’t need every single one. We have young guys from Bethlehem who will step up, I believe.

  2. Philosophical question about BSFC: is it reasonable/practical to have essentially the whole team be a development team at once or are you better off with fewer high-level development players on a better team? Do you stunt your growth of your best development players by having them on a fairly bad team? Would your key development players be more prepared to make the jump to MLS on a team that was annually challenging for first place with a greater mix of higher skilled veterans? I am honestly curious what people think.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Wbev asks an excellent question, simply excellent.
      Tanner’s initial response isquite clear at the philosophical level. 2019 was a transition year for Bethlehem to the new philosophy, but also because there were many fewer academy players available to step up a level already knowing what they were doing. IN 2019 THE ACADEMY HAD TO LEARN THE NEW SYSTEM ALSO.
      My guess is that the plethora of international loans on the Bethlehem roster is a one=off phenomenon designed to plug the hole of the Academy not being able to support Bethlehem to the same extent as previously with players who would step up already knowing the system.
      So we do not yet have a fully0-detailed view of Ernst Tanner’s answer to the question, because the academy role in it may change significantly from 2020 and beyond.
      Other teams answer the question differently. The most interesting one to me has been Chicago, which has not one but two affiliated minor-league clubs, one in USLC and one in USLOne. They have the full range of gradations of developmental steps available in the United States from summertime NCAA amateurs to MLS itself.
      Loudon, Red Bulls 2, and Real Monarchs lean towards developing a few youngsters in a matrix of older players capable of USLC success. In fairness, Loudon is just getting started, so fielding a team was a priority rather than implementing a philosophical vision.
      Atlanta has been in the middle, as was Bethlehem under Earnie Stewart.
      For reasons that may not be fully determined by player development philosophy, Orlando City B and Toronto FC 2 have chosen to downgrade their development projects to Division three from Division Two. They may be requirement refugees, e.g., Toronto 2’s stadium does not qualify for US Soccer D-2 standards.
      Those five eastern conference sides are the ones with which I have any familiarity, since I pay little attention to the USLC west.
      By impressions, Real Monarchs like a matrix of older players with a sprinkling of younger. Portland and Tacoma (used to be SEattle 2) like younger sides. I have no real sense of Los Dos (Galaxy 2). Swope Park has just rebranded to Sporting KC 2 and seem to be getting a lot younger. (And they were in the east this year.)
      So there is a range of answers by the practitioners.
      Tanner is emphatic about getting younger as the proper approach, and says the data demonstrate the principle. it is too soon to see it for ourselves.

    • Great question… and OSC, you always have great insight on BSFC.

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